“The whole country, North and South, should thank Him for this step.”
A hundred fifty years (and a few days) ago, Major Robert Anderson quietly evacuated his command at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina, to Fort Sumter, an unfinished installation in Charleston Harbor. In doing so, he ceded the indefensible Moultrie to the South Carolina secessionists, and set the stage for the “Sumter crisis” that would play out over the next several weeks.
In the wake of South Carolina’s secession on December 20, Anderson’s orders from the Secretary of War, dated December 21, were somewhat contradictory. In the two-page memo, he is first enjoined, if attacked, to “defend yourself to the last extremity.” Then, he is reminded that “it is neither expected nor desired that you should expose your own life or that of your men in a hopeless conflict in defense of the Forts. If they are invested or attacked by a force so superior that resistance would in you judgment be a useless waste of life it would be your duty to yield to necessity and make the best terms in your power.”
Even as the War Department sent those orders, a delegation from South Carolina was en route to Washington to demand the surrender of Moultrie and the other U.S. military installations around Charleston Harbor. Both sides expected the Buchanan administration to refuse, and both sides then expected Moultrie to be overrun by South Carolina militia called up in response to that state’s withdrawal from the Union. The outcome seemed pre-ordained.
What Anderson did on December 26, on his own initiative, was change the game from the way both Washington and the secessionists expected it eventually to play out. Between six and eight p.m., Anderson spiked Moultrie’s guns, burned their carriages, cut down the flagpole and transferred his entire command to Sumter. The next day, in response to an incredulous telegram from a War Department caught blindsided by his action, Anderson wired back:
The telegram is correct. I abandoned Fort Moultrie because I was certain that, if attacked, my men must have been sacrificed and the command of the harbor lost. I spiked the guns and destroyed the carriages to keep the guns from being used against us. If attacked, the garrison would never have surrendered without a fight.
Anderson speaks here explicitly to his commitment to both the men of his command and to his mission as a soldier — had he waited for the expected assault on Moultrie, “my men must have been sacrificed and the command of the harbor lost.” In a letter to his wife, dated at the time for their arrival at Sumter, Anderson (like many of his contemporaries) credits God with guiding the wisdom of his action:
Fort Sumter, S. C.,
8 P. M., Dec. 26, 1860.
Thanks be to God. I give them with my whole heart for His having given me the will, and shewn me the way to bring my command to this Fort. I can now breathe freely. The whole force of S. Carolina would not venture to attack us. Our crossing was accomplished between six and eight o’clock. I am satisfied that there was no suspicion of what we were going to do. I have no doubt that the news of what I have done will be telegraphed to New York this night. We saw signal rockets thrown up all around just as our last boat came over. I have not time to write more—as I must make my report to the Ad. Genl. . . . Praise be to God for His merciful kindness to us. I think that the whole country North and South should thank Him for this step.
I like that last line, “I think that the whole country North and South should thank Him for this step.” I doubt either side did at the time, but I think Anderson was right — he thought (to use a bad, modern cliche) “outside the box” and pushed back the direct, armed conflict for more than three months.
In its ongoing Civil War series, “A House Divided,” the Washington Post asks several prominent historians whether evacuating Moultrie was Anderson’s best option. So far Joan Waugh, Frank J. Williams, and Scott Hartwig all agree: Major Anderson had no alternative, short of outright capitulation. Hartwig:
Anderson had 74 officers and men in two artillery companies at Ft. Moultrie, but after deducting the noncombatants – musicians, sick and those under arrest for various reasons – his effective strength was about half that. Moultrie’s purpose was for its guns to cover the channel leading from the open sea into Charleston harbor, not defend against an attack from the rear. The fort’s defenses were so vulnerable to land attack that no competent army officer would have considered attempting to defend it. Wind had blown sand up so high against the fort’s walls that cattle could climb up, walk through the embrasures and onto the parapet. Sand dunes east of the fort rose higher than the fort’s walls and provided excellent firing positions for an attacker. All of the buildings in the fort except for the fortifications were wood and easily burned. There were private houses on the east side of the fort and cottages on the west side, which could provide additional cover for an attacker. But a competent attacker did not need to assault the fort. Sitting on a peninsula of Sullivan’s Island it could easily be cut off and the garrison starved into surrender.
Following the December 20 secession of South Carolina, Anderson learned that preparations were underway to attack Moultrie if the negotiations between South Carolina’s commissioners and the Buchanan administration failed to secure its surrender. Anderson already knew that Buchanan probably would not surrender the fort so it was necessary to act quickly. Fort Sumter was the only defensible point available to Anderson and his small garrison. It could not be attacked by land and could be reinforced and resupplied by water. On the evening of December 26, in a cleverly planned and executed operation, the garrison made the transfer from Moultrie to Sumter without incident.
Though it infuriated the secessionists at the time, who thought they’d been played (they had), it seems clear now that Anderson’s move was the correct one, both politically and militarily. It held off direct, armed conflict, maintained a symbolic U.S. military presence at Charleston, and bought both sides more than three months’ time to reach a peaceful resolution to the dispute. In modern parlance, Anderson “dialed it back” by evacuating Moultrie and removing his men to Sumter. More to the point, it’s hard to see why Anderson would do anything else; although a pro-slavery Kentuckian and a former slaveholder himself, he saw his first allegiance to his assignment, and to his immediate command. Anderson couldn’t control events outside Moultrie’s walls, but he recognized that both Washington and the secessionists had effectively locked themselves into courses of action that would have destroyed his command and yielded any U.S. control over the harbor. In the absence of clear directives from Washington, he responded to them as a professional soldier should, with careful deliberation and planning, followed by decisive execution, in a way that gave the government — both governments — time and options to avert the looming crisis.
Robert E. Lee famously cast his lot with Virginia and the Confederacy, but that only came months later, when he felt his own, home state was threatened. Had Lee been in command at Moultrie in December 1860, I suspect he would have done exactly the same thing.
Ed. Note: The post has been extensively rewritten in response to a reader’s inquiry in the comments, below. Thanks to him for providing the impetus for this. Image: Evacuation of Fort Moultrie by W. R. Waud, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.